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Accused of War Crimes Himself, Putin Plays Humanist in Israeli–Hamas War

A local resident stands next to the wreckage of his car in the courtyard of a burnt-out apartment block in Mariupol, Ukraine. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
A local resident stands next to the wreckage of his car in the courtyard of a burnt-out apartment block in Mariupol, Ukraine. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia initiated or was involved in wars and conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine.

Speaking with the leaders of Russia’s main religions in Moscow on October 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned violence in the Israeli – Hamas war and called for the protection of civilians.

In an apparent criticism of Operation Swords of Iron, Israel’s ongoing response to the Hamas attack, Putin said:

“The fight against terrorism cannot be conducted on the notorious principle of collective responsibility resulting in the deaths of elderly people, women, children, entire families. Hundreds of thousands of people are left without shelter, food, water, electricity and medical assistance.”

The Russian president’s comments came as a delegation of senior Hamas envoys arrived in Moscow to hold talks with top government officials.

Following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people, with more than 200 taken hostage, Putin spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syria’s Bashar Assad, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, and others.

Putin’s phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came nine days later, on October 16. The Russian leader expressed condolences to the families of the victims of the attack and told Netanyahu that all hostilities should be immediately halted.

Putin said that Russia would pursue a plan to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip” and that the Israeli operation could result in an “absolutely unacceptable” number of civilian casualties.

The estimated death toll of 7,000 civilians in Gaza is based solely on data provided by the territory's Hamas-controlled health ministry. Israel says the ministry has been inflating the number of civilian casualties.

Yet, Putin's expression of humanism and call for protecting civilians comes as the Russian leader himself faces charges of war crimes and genocide against the people of Ukraine, with an active warrant for his arrest having been issued by the United Nations International Court of Justice.

During Putin’s 20 years in power, beginning with his 1999 appointment as Russia’s prime minister, Russia has launched or participated in wars and conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine.

Second Chechen War

In September 1999, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to re-enter Chechnya, annulling a peace agreement between Grozny and Moscow that stopped the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. Putin dubbed the second war a “counter-terrorism operation” and justified it by blaming Chechen separatists for apartment building bombings that killed hundreds of civilians in Moscow and other Russian cities.

While “[e]vidence never proved Chechen involvement in the bombings,” Russian and Western investigative journalists claimed that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was responsible for the bombings. Before becoming prime minister, Putin served as FSB director.

In 2007, Amnesty International, a nongovernmental organization, estimated the number of civilian casualties in the second Chechen war at as many as 25,000, with up to 5,000 people missing.

The first Chechen War, launched in 1993 by then-president Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, claimed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives, most of them civilians, according to historians.

Estimates of the number of civilian casualties in the two Chechen wars vary depending on the source. Chechen sources claim at least 300,000, while independent watchdogs like the Russian rights group Memorial estimate at least 50,000 civilian deaths in the first war alone.

Most of the Chechen capital Grozny was destroyed during the two wars.

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war

In 2015, Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war to ensure the survival of the Bashar Assad regime.

Russia's heavy bombing of Syria in 2016 during the Battle of Aleppo was a war crime, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights group. More than 440 civilians were killed in the Russia-Syria coalition’s month-long offensive, more than 90 of them children.

“Airstrikes often appeared to be recklessly indiscriminate, deliberately targeted at least one medical facility, and included the use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and incendiary weapons," HRW reported.

According to the 2017 United Nations-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, war crimes were “committed by all parties” in the battle for Aleppo. The U.N. report noted that “between July and December, Syrian and Russian forces carried out daily air strikes, claiming hundreds of lives and reducing hospitals, schools and markets to rubble.”

Russia and the Assad regime are responsible for 91% of 229,000 civilian deaths in Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent watchdog that collects data on civilian casualties, said in its June 2022 report.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine

According to international human rights organizations and Western news reports, the invasion of Ukraine saw indiscriminate Russian shelling and strikes on civilian objects, such as residential buildings, hospitals, schools and kindergartens, and indiscriminate killings of civilians.

On February 25, 2022, the second day of the war, Amnesty International (AI), a London-based human rights group, reported that the Russian army was not using precision weapons, but rather was launching indiscriminate strikes “on civilian areas and strikes on protected objects such as hospitals.”

The findings were based on an analysis of evidence that included photographs, videos and satellite imagery, carried out by Amnesty International's Crisis Evidence Lab.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said on February 25, 2022, that indiscriminate attacks on civilians violate international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes:

“The Russian military has shown a blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas. Some of these attacks may be war crimes. The Russian government, which falsely claims to use only precision-guided weapons, should take responsibility for these acts.”

According to HRW, in the first 11 days of the war, in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv alone, more than 450 civilians were reportedly killed or injured in “Russian airstrikes and artillery shelling of populated areas.”

Russian forces “showed disregard for civilian lives through repeated apparent indiscriminate attacks in populated areas” of Kharkiv, using cluster munitions, heavy artillery shells and multiple launch rockets, said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, on March 18, 2022.

Ukrainian and foreign investigators and prosecutors have documented numerous cases of Russian forces executing civilians in the city of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, from March 5 to March 31, 2022. The bodies of more than 30 civilians were found on the streets of Bucha and in the courtyards of houses, while another 67 civilian bodies were exhumed from a mass grave.

Yuriy Belousov, the head of the War Crimes Department in Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office, said in February 2023 that, during the Russian invasion, up to 100,000 civilians may have died, “whose bodies will have to be found and identified once occupied territory is liberated.”

On September 25, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (ONHCR) reported that it had recorded 27,449 civilian casualties in Ukraine between February 24, 2022, and September 24, 2023. Of those, 9,701 were killed and 17,748 injured.

The ONHCR said it believed “that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration.”